Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Tradition of Korean Peasant Teas

If you think that the farmers that scatter the rual south of Korea are drinking the finest first pick Ujeon grade teas in the teaware of old ceramic masters, you are wrong.  Most farmers and labourers in tea producing areas choose to sell their best teas for cash or give it as gifts and sometimes drink more modest teas prepared in a very simple way.  Koreans are very practical people.  Throughout history Korea has gone through periods where the price of tea was beyond the reach of the average person, this is especially true for the finer Korean teas.  Even today, Korean tea is quite expensive.

Today Koreans who don't or can't purchase the finer teas can easily enjoy inexpensive Korean tea the way that the world's common people enjoy it, in a tea bag.  The tea bag is a relatively modern invention of the last century.  In the hundreds of years before the invention and use of teabags these Koreans resorted to peasant teas.

There are two practical considerations that have lead to the development of peasant teas in Korea.  The first is to not waste good quality tea.  The second is to make use of lesser quality leaves.

Tea in Korea is picked according to seasonal markers.  The most subtle teas are picked in the early spring (ujeon grade) and become deeper with a larger leaf as they are picked later into spring and summer (in this order: saejak, jungjak, daejak).  Loose summer teas are rarely picked and sold because they have lost much of their complexity at this point.  However, they are still perfectly drinkable, often organic or semi-wild, tea.  One method of preparing these later picked spring/ summer leaves is by producing chung cha.  Chung cha is produced by a very simple technique which involves roasting the freshly picked leaves in an iron cauldron to kill-green, hand rolling, allowing short time to wither, second roasting, then sun drying.  This crude technique is very similar to the way puerh tea is produced.

Sometimes later picked spring and summer leaves are used for ddok cha especially coin type ddok cha.  This is because the later picked leaves have a deeper, hardier quality to them that are in some ways better for aging than the more subtle picks of Ujeon and Seajak grades.  These less expensive leaves can also be stored for a longer time when they are compressed into cake forms.  This allows them to be enjoyed at a later time, after the higher quality tea has been consumed.  Very simple, peasant style ddok cha can also be produced by freshly picked, but leftover, tea leaves that have not undergone the rather labour intensive production of green tea.  Even cruder forms of peasant style ddok cha can be made by using up old stale green tea that is left over from last season.  These finished but stale loose green tea leaves are steamed, pulverized with a wooden mallet, pressed into cakes, and then left to dry.  It is important to note that the ddok cha that is available for sale in Korean teashops is not produced in this style but rather from high quality, fresh, seajak or jungjak grade leaves.  The ddokcha for sale in shops is produced using a very deliberate and refined method of production.

Ddok cha is not the only type of peasant tea that Koreans make with older stale green tea.  They may also crush this old green tea up in an attempt to oxidize the tea, then they store/age it as balhyocha.  They also re-roast green tea, especially higher quality but stale green teas.  The re-roasting is done just before the tea is consumed to awaken the qi of the tea.  One has seen this re-roasting done over a ceramic device than looks very similar to a tea warmer.  A small, wide-angled, cylindrical-cone shaped ceramic cup is warmed by being placed in the ceramic holder.  The ceramic cone rests in the holder directly above a tea light or small oil lamp.  When the ceramic cone shaped cup is warm the stale green tea is placed in the cup.  It is removed from the heat and shaken to mix it up and give it an even roast before being placed back over the heat source.  This tea is roasted in very small batches, just enough for one pot.  The awakened green tea is placed in the pot either immediately after the roast or after it has sat out for a short while.

As you can see Korean peasant teas are inexpensive teas that undergo simple even crude production.  Nowadays these teas are quite rare especially outside the rural tea producing regions of the south, even few tea people in Korea are familiar with them.  However, they are an interesting but rarely discussed part of Korea's tea culture and history.



Anonymous said...

You are a shameless charcoal tease, my friend...


Matt said...



Notes on the charcoal series are a real train wreck right now!

Thought one would get them in order and post about charcoal today but while drinking some interesting Korean peasant tea, had a change of heart. Isn't Korean peasant tea much more interesting than charcoal anyways? Hahaha...

Okay, okay...

Promise to post the second Part of the Charcoal series within the week.

(humm... maybe a post on this interesting tea, may come first though)


Centranthus said...

I've had many people direct me to your blog, sir, and now I see why. I found this post most informative. I had recently gifted a Jungjak over this past holiday - with only the tiniest bit of knowledge about it.

Thankyou so much for the information!


Matt said...


It is very very common to give green tea as a gift in Korea. It seems your friends and family got a great gift this holiday season! If you don't mind telling, where did you purchase the Jungjak from?

Thanks for stopping by.


Hektor Konomi said...

Matt, thanks for the wonderful blog. From your description of these Korean peasant teas, they remind me of the Japanese regional bancha teas.


Hektor Konomi

Matt said...

Hektor Konomi,

Thanks for your kind words.

These teas are definitely in the same spirit as Japanese bancha.


michele said...

Tea is worth its weight in gold for the farmers. I learned a lot in this article.

Matt said...


Yes, you should never take tea for granted.

Thanks for learning with us!